Review: Barbara Hepworth, Sculpture for a Modern World Exhibition

Affable, sensual and a bit perplexing

For ticket holders who aren’t familiar with her, Tate Britain’s retrospective of the British celebrity sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) cannot compare to the stature of the lady herself. Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, her passion for art and sculpting led not only to her eventual global fame but also to her future husband and collaborator Ben Nicholson, a relationship that has been at the forefront of this exhibition.

After they settled in St Ives, Cornwall, without her knowing it would be where she’d reside for the rest of her life, St Ives’ landscape formed a relationship with the lady which is reflected achingly beautifully in the exhibition. The sensuous and balanced shapes and forms embody the fantastic control and craftiness of Hepworth who in this almost biographical exhibition emerges not as an Iron Lady but a lady who carves with iron.

One of the reasons that I called it perplexing is that the selected works are more or less monotonously placed into vitrines that sit awkwardly with the eye level. Locking the tactile sculptures into glass cases could be a kludge to avoid big budget mise-en-scene environmental set up as many of Hepworth’s works had been made for outdoors, despite the artist herself had urged that these sculptures were meant to be touched. The staging of the pieces proves to be underwhelming against expectations more than anything considering this has been the first in London in 47 years.

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This is not an exhibition that aims for spectacles nor is it inventive or imaginative in its presentation of such modernist works. Surely, for the female artist who changed the face of sculpting in a male dominated world of sculptors who refused to be addressed as a sculptress, there could be a bit more rickety to rock her perfectly balanced, sensual and sentient geometric nirvana. With the exception of the last room for “Garden”, the rest do not quite distinguish themselves from an Apple store.

Another reason I was underwhelmed is its lack of narrative. A lot could be said of a woman who went to art school and sculpted through two World Wars and rebelled against the totalitarian regimes of the Europe – there isn’t a clear structure of feeling.

In contrast to the actions that the artist has taken to ensure the way she is portrayed by the media, including mediating specific environments for photographing her works as well as public displays.

You would however find yourself at peace and properly meditated after a walk-through, because staring into marble sculptures “Two Segments and Sphere” (1935-6) or “Large and Small Form” (1934), will make you helplessly yearn for balance as the pure genius of the weight distribution and craftiness of these sculptures must endure not to fall all over the place and panic viewers. You will genuinely wonder how Hepworth was able to determine where to make hollow or to protrude.

Four large carvings in the sumptuous African hardwood guarea (1954-5), arguably the highpoint of Hepworth’s carving career, are reunited for this exhibition, which is also a highlight for me because they command the entire room, looking like four very proud half eaten apples.

Without being able to hype and emphasize one of her most important works “Single Form” (which now resides outside the UN headquarters in New York, due to a what seems to be a convoluted curational process, although it appears to be complacent in repositioning Hepworth as a global giant) Tate Britain however treats Hepworth’s superfans with a never before seen experience and reveals not only the aspect of Hepworth that was only known to a few selected private owners but also a bitter-sweetness in the celebration of an English sculptress’ extraordinary life that will leave you filled with beautiful tenderness.